Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The front page of the Irish Examiner this morning makes for very distressing reading for families of children and adults with disabilities and special needs. The chief executive of Cope Foundation, Mr. Seán Abbott, has said that the services and level of services are the worst he has seen in 38 years. He has said that adults with intellectual disabilities are essentially couch surfing between family members while waiting to access residential care at Cope Foundation. He said:

I have never seen anything like this... We always had the ability to say yes to people, now we spend all of our time saying no. We have to sit across the table from people and see the weariness in their eyes and say: "We can't help you, other than advocating for resources on your behalf".

There are 400 children at the Cope Foundation awaiting assessment for autism spectrum disorder. Of those who have been assessed, more than 1,350 children are awaiting specialist intervention. Some have been waiting years and will age out of ever getting seen. A total of 174 adults are on a residential waiting list, many of whom have no permanent home. A total of 649 adults have been identified as having "changing needs" and require further intervention and support while over 40% of the adults currently supported by the Cope Foundation are over the age of 45, which is becoming a significant issue with regard to parents over the ages of 70 or 80 having to cater for adults with special needs who urgently need residential accommodation. Cope Foundation has just 11 whole-time equivalent staff tackling the 1,350 cases on the specialist intervention waiting list and the 400 children awaiting assessment. Mr. Abbott said;

No matter how fast we do it, we will never clear it... It keeps growing... You get diagnosed and you wait for assessment. You get assessed and you wait for intervention.

No additional residential places or adult therapies have been funded.

Cope Foundation supports about 2,300 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. It is a well-known, well-respected and indeed historic service provider in the Cork region. Mr. Abbott is a reasonable man who has worked with Deputies from all parties. He is not given to a high public profile. The fact that he has issued these statements is a huge cry for help and a huge call to the Government to change direction. This is reflected nationally. The National Federation of Voluntary Bodies made a submission to the Oireachtas in June encapsulating of these issues.

Does the Taoiseach agree that this highlights that the Government lacks vision, commitment and above all, delivery for the disability sector? Does he accept that the Government has been in denial about the scale of the challenges facing many families of children and adults with special needs? These families are under enormous pressure fighting battles they cannot win. Will the Government look at the Revised Estimates with a view to increasing resources significantly for organisations like the Cope Foundation?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Cope Foundation is a voluntary organisation that provides a comprehensive range of services to approximately 2,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities on behalf of the HSE under section 38 of the Health Act. Services include early intervention, schooling, training, adult day services, supported employment, housing, information and advice at 65 locations throughout Cork city and county. Cope Foundation employs 800 staff. The services it provides are very well regarded and the staff are highly respected.

Funding for the Cope Foundation has increased year on year since 2016. In 2016, it was €44.3 million; in 2017, it was €53.1 million; in 2018, €55.6 million; and in 2019, it is €56.1 million. Cope Foundation has received a 26% increase in budget under this Fine Gael-Independent Administration. I am not sure if that 26% increase in budget has resulted in a 20% increase in service levels. Often this is not possible because of inflation and pay demands but in general, taxpayers expect that a significant increase in funding should result in an increase in services and the quality of services even if it is not the same level as the increase.

The Government is, of course, committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities which empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their lives. As announced in the budget last week, the overall budget for disability services in 2020 will be in excess of €2 billion for the first time. Decisions have not yet been made yet on how this €2 billion will be allocated. That is done as part of the HSE's service plan for 2020 and is then broken down to local level so these discussions are only beginning. The €2 billion allocated to disability services next year has yet to be divided up among the different organisations so those discussions must begin. I do not think it would be right for me to comment further at this stage on any individual organisation's bid for funding because all organisations around the country will also be requesting an increase and there will never be enough to go around to satisfy all requests for increases. However, there will be increases for the vast majority of organisations. Indeed 2,000 organisations are receiving funding from the HSE. They vary in terms of size, geographic coverage and the range of services provided.

The Taoiseach's response concerns me. It is similar to his response yesterday when I raised the issue of homelessness. The Taoiseach focused in defensive mode on the issues pertaining to Mr. Hourihane, who was savagely beaten to death, instead of on the wider issues his death revealed in terms of the Government's inaction on housing. It is the same with his response today where he has essentially attacked, almost implying that the Cope Foundation is not spending the money it has got or is not doing it adequately or that he would like to see a 26% increase in services. The Government seems to be very intolerant of criticism, which is why people like Mr. Abbott have not spoken out for years. It is because they have a sense that they will get beaten back down, that it will be taken out on them by the Government and the authorities. That is a genuine feeling out there and that is what the Taoiseach just implied. What the Taoiseach did not do is point out that, essentially, the number of people for whom Cope Foundation works has doubled. As Mr. Abbott noted, it now caters for 2,300 children and adults. Cope Foundation catered for half that figure five years ago. It is not just about the Cope Foundation. The presentation by the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies to the Oireachtas in June concerned the funding crisis in disability services. People are not making this up.

Families with children with special needs are not making up the uncertainties, anxieties or stress they are under, or the fact that they cannot get assessments or access to speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and so on. The Government is not delivering on disability issues. Last year, provision was made for 100 therapists.

The Deputy's time is up.

Only eight of those therapists actually got through.

We were told during the Estimates discussion with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform that only eight therapists were hired out of that 100.

That is not true. The Deputy is misleading the House. I will write to him and he can correct the record.

I do not want the Minister to write to me. He should talk to the families in question and engage with them. The Government is in denial about the stress and anxiety families are facing.

The Deputy is over time. I ask him to conclude.

The Government must change tack on its delivery of services to people with disabilities.

This is coming from the man who cut the disability allowance.

Much like yesterday, the Deputy is trying to misrepresent and mischaracterise my response in order to score political points and make himself look good.

That is not true.

It is exactly true and it is disappointing.

We were shocked into silence by what the Taoiseach said yesterday.

The Cope Foundation does fabulous work which we support and respect. It received a 26% budget increase in the past three years under this Government and will receive a further increase next year, as we have set aside €2 billion for disability services in 2020. The other truth is that when Deputy Micheál Martin was in government, his party cut the budget for disability services and the disability allowance.

Was Fianna Fáil in government? I had forgotten.

The Deputy is no friend of people with disabilities. Fianna Fáil's record on disability is appalling. It cut services and the disability allowance.

The Taoiseach should talk to people in the disability sector about my record.

We have increased the budget for services to a record high and restored the disability allowance. The Deputy should be ashamed of his record on disability and should not be so self-righteous in this House.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach should look at services in his own constituency. They are not even open yet.

Fianna Fáil cut the disability allowance. It should be ashamed of how it treated people with disabilities.

I ask Deputies to calm down.

Fianna Fáil hammered people with disabilities when it was in government.

Where are the schools?

Eaten bread is soon forgotten.

The whistle has not been blown yet, so I ask Deputies to calm down.

(Interruptions).

I call Deputy McDonald.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I take it the lads have simmered down now.

Grainne Gault is due to protest at the gates of the Dáil this afternoon. On St. Patrick's Day last year, Grainne lost her beautiful 14 year old daughter Elisha to suicide. In the wake of Elisha's death, Grainne and her family have been incredibly courageous. She and the group, Mental Health Warriors, have voiced their concerns about the state of mental health supports and provisions for children and adolescents. Ms Gault kept Elisha's Facebook page open as a place where distressed young people could come for help and support. Sadly, Elisha's story is not an isolated case. Many of our young people today struggle with mental health difficulties and, more generally, we also have a serious mental health crisis in our country. The rate of death by suicide is frightening. Over the last two years, 744 people died by suicide. That is 744 families such as the Gaults who now live with an unbearable loss every day. We need a unified approach and common purpose in mental health, right across the political spectrum. In that spirit, I must tell the Taoiseach that his Government is failing to deliver adequate mental health services. Despite all the talk and nice words, we are not seeing real improvements in services. While talking helps one's mental health and it is good and necessary to talk, it is the Government's responsibility to back that up with services.

The Government's failure is most evident in the child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, which is on its knees. It is crumbling while families and communities cry out for help, which the Government is not providing. Staffing shortages have led to CAMHS beds lying empty and children waiting months for mental healthcare. In August, 2,440 children were waiting for mental health services. Half of those children were waiting at least 12 weeks to be seen, while 748 were waiting six months. That is far too long to wait when a young person's health, and possibly life, hangs in the balance.

There is also a problem with children being admitted to adult mental health units. My colleague, Deputy Cullinane, highlighted the fact that eight children were admitted to adult facilities in 2018 in Waterford alone. Capacity is not matching the scale of need. The targets set in A Vision for Change in 2009 are not yet being met, over a decade later. In last week's budget, the Government announced a paltry and pathetic €14 million in new money for all mental health services. Providing a seven-day outpatient model for CAHMS would cost just over €3 million, which is almost a quarter of the Government's inadequate allocation of new money. The 2020 budget represented a real opportunity for the Government to do better on mental health services, which it could have seized. Having failed to do so, I ask the Taoiseach to seize that opportunity now and commit to delivering the necessary investment that families like the family of Elisha, whose mother Grainne will be at the gates this afternoon, expect and deserve.

I am sorry to hear the story the Deputy recounted to the Chamber a few moments ago. On the wider issue, the Government has prioritised mental health and taken it very seriously in recent years. There has been a major increase in resources for mental health. Since 2012, the budget for mental health services has increased by 44%. I doubt one could find such a large increase in mental health funding in any seven-year period in Irish history. An additional €40 million for mental health was announced in the budget last week, which brings the mental health budget to over €1 billion for the first time.

Some 26 pay increases-----

That is a very significant investment in mental health services. We are seeing progress in some areas. The Deputy will be aware that the rate of suicide in Ireland has fallen by about 30% in recent years. Of course, any suicide is one too many, but we all welcome the fact that suicide rates in Ireland are dropping. It also reminds us that there is more to do. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who has responsibility for mental health, informed me last week that the CAMHS waiting list is down 25% and still falling. That is a very positive development, on which we need to build. We have also invested in improving psychological services in primary care, by hiring an additional 114 assistant psychologists, for example.

They are leaving their posts.

Last week, a 24-hour mental health helpline was established for the first time. People often do not know how to access the 1,000 or so different mental health services out of hours, whether in the evening, at nighttime or on weekends. That helpline, which is based in the National Ambulance Service, is making a real difference.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, made a significant move by investing money in health and well-being in education. Investing in mental well-being reduces the risk of people developing mental illnesses later on. Funding a mental health budget of over €1 billion, reducing suicide rates and waiting times for CAMHS, and investing in primary care are the kinds of significant things the Government is doing, although there is always more work to be done. We acknowledge that and will continue to build on the progress made so far.

We are only going to get this right if we start from a factual position and if there is no delusion on anybody's part. The death of Elisha Gault, the child I mentioned, was not captured in the official statistics. She is not officially recorded as a death by suicide. Instead of claiming - I believe erroneously - that deaths by suicide are falling, the Taoiseach would be better served by looking at those real live statistics and understanding that they do not represent the full picture. The Taoiseach rattled off figures to me, citing a figure of €40 million. However, only €14 million of that is new money. That is a fact.

I am sure the Taoiseach understands that A Vision for Change from 2009 was one of those fairly rare occasions when people right across political and public life agreed that this is the plan and the way forward. Despite this, more than ten years later the plan has not been delivered. It has not been resourced and it has not been funded.

Here is the rub. The Taoiseach can bat this issue off with me today. However, families across the land, perhaps watching this exchange and listening to him as the Head of the Government, are in desperate situations. They have children and young people who are self-harming and who go missing.

Please, Deputy. The time is up.

They have children and young people in real distress. They cannot get the services they need. Despite the Taoiseach rattling figures at me, the reality on the ground is that the Government has failed to fund these services.

Deputy, the time is up.

I want to offer the Taoiseach the opportunity again to make a commitment to fund these services properly. This is not to satisfy me but to satisfy the needs of the communities and families who rely on them.

Again, I do not want to comment on individual cases when I do not have the detailed information about them. Next year, spending on mental health will increase by €39 million, bringing it to in excess of €1 billion for the first time. It is new money. It is €13 million for new developments.

It is €26 million for staff costs and €13 million for Portrane. These are lies.

It is €13 million for new developments and €26 million for pay increases and staff pay. That is new money. It is good that we pay our staff in mental health services more. That is how we can recruit and retain them. I am sorry that Sinn Féin seems to disregard the fact that we are providing money for more staff and to pay them more. We will not improve mental health services if we do not do that. I am disappointed that Sinn Féin is not supporting that policy.

The Deputy specifically asked about the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, figures. I saw her shaking her head. The waiting list is down 20% this year. It is down from 2,517 last December to 2,000 in August. It is continuing to fall because of the structural reforms made by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

I want to make a sincere offer to Sinn Féin. If the party has a mental health policy drafted up, costed, thought through and seriously considered, the Government will be happy to engage with the party on it.

I want to highlight the serious and alarming low levels of Garda availability across County Tipperary. There are supposed to be 380 gardaí to cover the county. Unfortunately, 45 of them are out on long-term sick leave. I wish them well as many them have injuries from the line of duty. I also raise this issue in the context of the proposed divisional reorganisation, a move that will see Tipperary lose its divisional headquarters after it is transferred to Ennis, County Clare. This was a decision taken without any consultation with the Garda Representative Association, GRA, or anyone else.

As an example of just how serious the situation is, I want to alert the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice and Equality to the following example that took place over the course of one week in Carrick-on-Suir. The town has a population of 7,000 people. I have the Garda roster here thanks to the local gardaí because they are so frustrated. On the Wednesday of the week in question, there were just two gardaí due to work in Carrick-on-Suir. One garda had to go to Clonmel to drive a patrol car, leaving one garda for the entire town of Carrick-on-Suir from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. This also affected neighbouring towns such as Fethard, Kiltinan, Kilcash, Ahenny and Faugheen. Thursday was court day, meaning no gardaí were available. On Friday, there were two gardaí due to work in Carrick-on-Suir. Both of them were directed to Clonmel to take a prisoner from there to a court in County Cork. Astonishingly, this left Carrick-on-Suir with no Garda presence whatsoever for the entire Friday of that week. I remind the Taoiseach that this is a town of 7,000 people. They are law-abiding, decent people who pay their taxes, work hard and deserve to be supported. On Saturday, there was only one garda on duty because the other garda was on leave. The on-duty garda was directed to Clonmel to perform a checkpoint, leaving Carrick-on-Suir without any garda.

I salute Sergeant Mick Hubbard and his Garda colleagues in Carrick-on-Suir, who give an excellent service. However, they are dragged away from it and do not have enough numbers. The Taoiseach will agree that this is an intolerable situation for the people of Carrick-on-Suir and ordinary rank-and-file gardaí. Can the Taoiseach imagine how ordinary gardaí - men and women - feel having to leave their town and areas completely unpatrolled? It is shocking.

Fr. Paul Waldron and community activists held two meetings last year because of the whole issue pertaining to mental health, suicide and the proliferation of drugs in the town. We got tokenism from senior gardaí when they met us then, promising the sun, moon and the stars. It has diminished significantly since then. As a public representative, I call on the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and his officials to rectify this immediately. We need at least 45 new gardaí in Clonmel to augment it. In Roscrea last week, there was a brawl on the street. The day after, no garda was available to open the Garda station there. An officer had to come from Nenagh to open it. It is shocking. The Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel Garda districts are starved of equipment, patrol cars and personnel.

This new reconfiguration without consultation will not work. It will in fact lessen impact. I am told by the GRA that bureaucracy increased with the pilot project for these reconfigurations and did not result in more gardaí on the beat. The Government must increase Garda strength and give gardaí the tools of the trade to do their job. Gardaí must be shown the respect they deserve. They want to serve their people but they are being handcuffed, blindfolded and restricted. They are also being taken out of Carrick-on-Suir, which is appalling.

The Government’s policy is to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Part of being tough on crime is providing more resources for gardaí as well as ensuring the Garda Síochána is reformed in order that those resources turn into actual gardaí on the street and on the ground for people to see them. This is what all the reforms are about. It is about having fewer chiefs but more gardaí - more policemen and policewomen - on the streets. It is about fewer policemen in offices and more gardaí out and about where people expect to see them. The Government is 100% behind the Garda Commissioner in driving those reforms and providing him with the additional resources he needs to ensure this happens.

In the past three years, the number of gardaí in Tipperary has increased from 354 to 385 while the number of civilian staff has increased from 32 to 66. This will continue as resources allow. The total Garda force nationwide is 14,200, supported by 2,700 Garda civilian staff. This means that the force is at its highest ever level with its highest ever budget, €1.88 billion, next year. Since I became Taoiseach, 1,000 gardaí have been recruited and up to 700 more will be recruited next year.

A large part of the reform is civilianisation, ensuring work that can be done by civilians is done by them, allowing gardaí to be freed up for front-line policing duties, which is what we want them to do. There has been a redeployment of 500 experienced gardaí to front-line services, with 250 redeployed in 2018. This means that the process of civilianisation has already delivered 750 more gardaí. Those who were in offices and administrative roles are now back on the front line where we want to see them.

The location of Garda district headquarters is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner to decide. When the Commissioner was appointed, we gave him the assurance that he would be properly resourced and that he would be given the freedom to reform the Garda as he saw fit. I am glad he is doing that. There are other examples of divisions where two counties have been put together. It works well. The location of the headquarters should not be a significant issue. It is different from an ambulance base or an emergency department. It is an administrative location and the Garda Commissioner decides where it makes sense to locate those.

I will give the Taoiseach the roster I was given. It has the facts and is from a member of the Garda Síochána who is afraid for his community and the people he wants to police.

I am astonished with the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, because he has not engaged with the GRA or anybody else. The GRA stated the Government’s policing reform plan looks like it has been built on quicksand following the budget allocation of €81 million. It will go nowhere near what it needs this year with additional costs and recruitment.

Recruitment is picking up. The Taoiseach did not listen to me, however. I said there are 383 gardaí in County Tipperary but 45 of them are out on long-term sick leave. Those are the true figures. We are setting up two new units that the former Chief Superintendent Kehoe should have set up but she did not. It was to do with sexual crime. It will be populated with ten members of An Garda Síochána and two sergeants from the already existing numbers, plus another unit that the Commissioner is rolling out as well. This cannot be done. We have the basic numbers on the ground. Any police force cannot work without the support of its people. The people are willing, ready and able. Neighbourhood Watch, the clergy and community groups will support the Garda.

However, they must be able to see gardaí. Officers must be able to stand in their kitchens and meet them. The principals in the schools, such as Mr. Kevin Langton in Carrick-on-Suir, do a great job. There is the musical society. We have a proud record of culture and heritage, but it is being adversely affected by the position regarding Garda numbers and the drugs epidemic. As an extension, crime and mental health issues are proliferating and there are no services available. We do not have one long-stay bed available. Gardaí need to be stationed in Carrick-on-Suir and other towns and villages. We do not need all flowery reports on what the Government is doing, what it will do and what it will not do. It is as though dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi go raibh gardaí i dTiobraid Árann. Níl siad ann - they are not there. Will the Taoiseach listen?

We are doing exactly what Deputy Mattie McGrath suggests. We are making sure that there are more gardaí on the beat on our streets. That is why 700 more gardaí will be recruited in 2020. It is why civilianisation is happening. The process of civilianisation means that gardaí are being taken out of office and administration jobs and are being put back on the front line. Restructuring is happening-----

It is not happening.

-----in order to ensure that there are fewer chiefs, fewer gardaí in offices and more sergeants and inspectors on the ground in communities, less bureaucracy and duplication at Garda senior level and more decisions being made at local level.

There are none so blind as those who cannot see. The Taoiseach is not listening.

That is why I ask the Deputy to get behind these reforms, which are exactly what will deliver what he wants, namely, more gardaí on the streets. That is where we want to see them.

We are not getting them.

It is difficult to ask about the Brexit process because the matter is so complex and people are in the "tunnel" - the word of the moment. Lord knows what will come out of that tunnel but we wish those involved in the talks well. If, as those in the media seem to be indicating. it may return something similar to the deal which was originally envisaged almost two years ago and which has been discussed in this House and broadly supported, that would be welcome.

I have one specific question regarding the restoration of Stormont in this process and how that fits in with what, come what may, will be a complex period of weeks, months and, probably, years. The Green Party, An Chomhaontas Glas, and the Green Party in Northern Ireland constitute an all-island organisation. For many years, we have been arguing that the arrangements and institutions at Stormont are not fit for purpose. I refer, for example, to the arrangement whereby my colleague, Clare Bailey, MLA, when entering the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, was forced to declare that whether she was a unionist, a nationalist or whatever. Ms Bailey grew up on the Lower Falls Road. She then moved to a mixed estate in County Antrim, attended an integrated school and later spent a lot of time in Holland and elsewhere. I cannot remember what exactly she put down when she was forced to answer that question. She probably referred to herself as internationalist, a feminist, an ecologist and an activist. The structures that obtain, including the declaration for Members of the Assembly, the mandatory coalition arrangements and the petition of concern, should be redesigned in the coming months if we can avoid a no-deal Brexit. I hope that Stormont will restored but it should not be only restored to what it always has been. We should look on this as an opportunity to evolve the institutions.

Deputy Adams, speaking at an event I attended in the audiovisual room last week, made a seminal point that the Good Friday Agreement, by its nature, provides for a range of different consents. One of the difficulties in the 1,000 days when the assembly at Stormont has not been sitting is that the people who vote for my colleague, Clare Bailey, MLA, have found no space to contribute to the debate. In the context of whatever deal is about to be done, we need a much broader sense of what the consent is rather than it being just a nationalist or a unionist consent. The Tánaiste was in Belfast talking to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland yesterday. I would imagine that it will be next to impossible to have Stormont restored in advance of next Monday. That will give rise to its own complications for politics in the North. In advance of whatever deal is done, we need to think of how we will contribute to the evolution of the Good Friday Agreement and the multiple consents that are needed to make that deal work.

Certainly, everyone in government is keen to facilitate and assist the parties in re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith and the Tánaiste have been working on that for weeks and months. Indeed, as recently as last night, the Tánaiste was in Stormont and he briefed me on the state of play this morning.

We are very much of the same thinking as Deputy Eamon Ryan in that restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive should not be restoration of business as usual. We have seen the Good Friday Agreement evolve previously with, for example, the advent of St. Andrews Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement. It can evolve again because we want to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Executive and the North-South bodies work better. We also want to ensure that if restoration occurs, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive will be sustainable and will not break down again after three months or six months if the big parties fall out with each other. Among the changes that need to be part of our consideration are those relating to the petition of concern, which had been used in a way that was never anticipated when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, for example, to block marriage equality even though the vast majority of those in the assembly and of the people in Northern Ireland want that to be legal, just as it is in the rest of the UK and in the rest of Ireland.

Deputy Eamon Ryan put his finger on a significant issue, which is that fact that the Good Friday Agreement requires assembly members to designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or other. People even find the term "other" pejorative because it certainly does not describe that growing identity or centre ground of people in Northern Ireland who see themselves as being both British and Irish and who often vote for parties such as the Green Party and the Alliance Party. One of the real flaws in double majorities in the system of cross-community consent is not only that it allows one community or even one party within that community to have a veto but that it discounts and reduces to nothing the votes of those who are designated as others. Again, that growing number of people who vote Alliance or Green and who consider themselves to be British and Irish, perhaps Northern Irish. That is something that has developed as a flaw. It is something of which I am very aware. My thinking in that regard would be similar to that of Deputy Eamon Ryan. As is always the case, however, any reforms or changes must be agreed by the big parties as well as the small parties in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Taoiseach for those comments. I look forward to seeing how this evolves along the lines he suggested. In the first instance, we should start with those bigger parties. When I say that the centre has a role to play, it is not a threat, it is not a power grab and it is not me outlining a nationalist position. I am not declaring it that way. What I am doing is recognising that the system was not working and that there is a chance for us to change it for the better. Obviously, that will be difficult. It would be helped by the fact that even if there is a deal this week or in the coming weeks, the talks will not end there. There are still probably years of negotiations ahead in respect of trade and other arrangements. My case is that it should not only be about trade. We should, as the Taoiseach stated, be looking at the evolving process. My party had suggested the establishment of a constitutional convention as a way of doing that up North. I was thinking earlier that another way of proceeding might be to use the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We should start examining that matter in order that we might start thinking, not only about the current fix and the difficulties that exist but also about how we can bring all parties in the North on board in the context of a different and better assembly.

Deputy Eamon Ryan is correct in his assessment that the talks will not end this week - or even this month - with an agreement. It is merely the end of the current phase of Brexit. What will happen, if we have an agreement this week or this month, is that we will then begin discussions on the future economic relationship and the future security relationship - the free trade agreement that we will build between the UK and the EU. Among our priorities in that regarding will be political co-operation, security co-operation and, in particular, trade. East-west trade between Britain and Ireland is so important, particularly to our farmers and agrifood sector. We want to make sure that the free trade agreement will allow for tariff-free, quota-free trade to continue between Ireland and Britain. Separately, there will be bilateral discussions between the British and Irish Governments, most likely within the structure of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

That is where we can build on some of the questions the Deputy raised and see how we could make those changes to modernise the arrangements in Northern Ireland. That cannot be done, however, without the support of the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly those that carry the most votes.